The End of History fails to arrive in Spain

It seems we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the End of History:

Spain’s King Felipe intervened dramatically Tuesday in the crisis over Catalan leaders’ bid for independence, accusing them of threatening the country’s stability and urging the state to defend “constitutional order.”

The 49-year-old king abandoned his previously measured tone over tensions with Catalonia as the standoff dragged the country into its deepest political crisis in decades.

He spoke after hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied in fury at violence by police against voters during a banned referendum on independence for their region on Sunday.

Catalan regional leaders held the vote in defiance of the national government which brands it illegal — as did Felipe on Tuesday.

“With their irresponsible conduct they could put at risk the economic and social stability of Catalonia and all of Spain,” he said of the Catalan leadership.

“They have placed themselves totally outside the law and democracy,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of the legitimate state powers to ensure constitutional order.”

[…]

Pictures of police beating unarmed Catalan voters with batons and dragging some by the hair during Sunday’s ballots drew international criticism.

Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont said nearly 900 people had received medical attention on Sunday, though local authorities confirmed a total of 92 injured. Four were hospitalised, two in serious condition.

The national government said more than 400 police officers were hurt.

A king intervenes in a standoff between separatists and a nominally democratic government that is trying, and failing, to bring them to heel… in Western Europe. Not quite what universal liberal democracy was supposed to look like.

Speaking of which, I somehow doubt this is what the inventors of the World Wide Web had in mind:

The world’s first internet war has begun, in Catalonia, as the people and government use it to organize an independence referendum on Sunday and Spanish intelligence attacks, freezing telecommunications links, occupying telecoms buildings, censors 100s of sites, protocols etc.

Spanish police raided the offices of the .cat domain registry in Barcelona, seizing all computers

The .cat domain was used for sharing information about last week’s Catalan independence referendum

More.

Communism, summarized

This may be the most profound statement on Communism ever:

Is there really anything else to say?

Self-inflicted decline

It’s generally a bad idea for major world powers to nurse 178-year-long grudges against foreigners, but it’s especially dumb to do so when your historical problems are largely self-inflicted:

There is little argument that 1,000 years ago, during the Northern Song dynasty, China was the most prosperous country in the world, richer than all the countries of Europe.

But, by the 19th century when the Opium War occurred, China was the sick man of Asia. How did it happen? Many believed it was the industrial revolution that propelled the West ahead of China.

But a recent paper casts a new light on this topic. The paper was written by three scholars, Stephen Broadberry of Oxford University, Hanhui Guan of Peking University and David Daokui Li of Tsinghua University.

They focused on GDP per capita, a new approach, and found that Chinese GDP per capita fluctuated at a high level during the Northern Song and Ming dynasties before trending downwards during the Qing dynasty. China’s slide downhill lasted for centuries.

In the abstract of their paper, the scholars state that “China led the world in living standards during the Northern Song dynasty, but had fallen behind Italy by 1300.” That is to say, the zenith of China’s glory was short-lived.

What this study shows is that China had begun a long process of decline since before the Ming dynasty, a process that continued for 600 to 700 years before the West appeared on the scene. That is to say, China’s decline was due to internal factors and began very early, in the 13th century.

National decline status: well underway

20 years later

Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China 20 years ago (July 1, 1997). This has occasioned much commentary among China-watchers. The NY Times ran a good piece by Keith Bradsher marking the anniversary:

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule two decades ago, the city was seen as a model of what China might one day become: prosperous, modern, international, with the broad protections of the rule of law.

There was anxiety about how such a place could survive in authoritarian China. But even after Beijing began encroaching on this former British colony’s freedoms, its reputation as one of the best-managed cities in Asia endured.

The trains ran on time. Crime and taxes were low. The skyline dazzled with ever taller buildings.

Those are still true. Yet as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches on Saturday, the perception of Hong Kong as something special — a vibrant crossroads of East and West that China may want to emulate — is fading fast.

Never-ending disputes between the city’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects.

Caught between rival modes of rule — Beijing’s dictates and the demands of local residents — the authorities have allowed problems to fester, including an affordable-housing crisis, a troubled education system and a delayed high-speed rail line.

Many say the fight over Hong Kong’s political future has paralyzed it, and perhaps doomed it to decline. As a result, the city is increasingly held up not as a model of China’s future but as a cautionary tale — for Beijing and its allies, of the perils of democracy, and for the opposition, of the perils of authoritarianism.

Hong Kong is still an incredible place, but my own sense is that the city is locked in terminal decline, for the reasons Bradsher talks about. This chart is relevant:

Of course, it was both inevitable and desirable that Hong Kong would lose some of its relative economic clout as mainland China built itself up into the world’s second-largest economy. But the mainland’s newfound wealth also allows China to assert control over Hong Kong by buying everything in it. And the city’s liberties are gradually being stripped away as its new overlords wield an increasingly heavy hand.

It’s not really surprising, and there’s nothing the rest of the world can do about it. But there it is. Anyway, here are some photos I’ve taken in Hong Kong over the years:

Blast from the past: Low-tech cheating

Originally posted Oct 26, 2013

China began the practice of selecting government officials through the imperial civil service exam in the early seventh century. This system lasted more or less continuously for 1,400 years. During much of that history, the exam tested candidates on their ability, among other things, to memorize insane quantities of classical texts. The stakes were daunting: success opened the door to lucrative, high-status public office; but after years of expensive test prep, the average candidate had a maybe five percent chance of passing the grueling provincial level exam.

Under these conditions, its hardly surprising that cheating flourished. In the face of strict policing and the threat of draconian punishments, dishonest examinees over the centuries tried almost every conceivable technique of trickery and fraud. The results were sometimes amazingly elaborate:

The sheer volume of knowledge required to succeed in the Imperial examinations elevated cheating to something of an art form in China. Miniature books were devised to be concealed in the palm of a hand; shirts had important passages from the Confucian Classics sewn, in miniscule lettering, to their insides; fans were constructed with pass-notes on their obverse. Other duplicities included hiring veteran scholars to sit the exams in ones stead, and the simple expedient of copying a neighbour in the exam hall. At certain times, bribery of examiners was commonplace.

– Justin Crozier, “A unique experiment.” From the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding’s China in Focus magazine (2002)

(Source)

In 2009, Chinese researchers discovered two tiny booklets dating from the Qing Dynasty designed to be smuggled into exam halls. One of them, slightly larger than a matchbox, contains 32 million characters of text.

It was amusing to see similar items on display in the museum under the Tengwang Pavilion in Nanchang. The labels aren’t very descriptive, but you get the idea:

Fortunately, China has put all that nonsense behind it. The imperial exam system was abolished in 1905. Today, instead of a rigorous, high-stakes national exam that holds the key to lucrative and prestigious government jobs, China has, well, a rigorous, high-stakes national exam that holds the key to social mobility.* And instead of miniature books and garments covered with hundreds of thousands of characters, the more unscrupulous exam-takers of today use wireless earpieces and pen scanners.

*Though perhaps decreasingly so.

Rome: Power & Glory

This (you can also find it on YouTube) is a very good documentary series on the Roman Empire. Entertaining and covers a lot of ground. It’s well-written and well-made, and even the cheesy clips from the old gladiator movie somehow enhance the atmosphere.

Prepare for war, since evidently you have found peace intolerable. -Scipio Africanus to Hannibal